August 27, 2008

Original songs in American accents

John Smythe      posted 8 Jul 2008, 01:37 PM

In my Hinepau review I am remiss in not reprising my rant (see my Puss In Boots review) about songs sung in American accents. Why in Hinepau of all plays – in the English verses anyway (I doubt the reo versions suffer the same fate)? This is nothing short of wilful subjugation to cultural colonialism. 

Yes I know The Howard Morrison Quartet, The Contikis, et al did it back in the 1960s, but that was mostly parody. And children imitating their Hit Parade faves have always done it. But we are talking original waiata here, created and sung by adult professionals.

Does anyone have a defence to mount for the use of American accents?

Murray Lynch     posted 16 Jul 2008, 11:21 PM

I’m baffled. Is it the use of the word ‘peeps’ (as in crew) that makes it American? There’s no American accent used in the show.

John Smythe      posted 17 Jul 2008, 07:33 AM / edited 20 Jul 2008, 08:18 PM

When Hinepau sings in English she heavily accents “aaah” for “I”, “maaa” for “my” … etc.  To my ear it is much more than just skewing the vowels to allow the throat to open more as singers are wont to do. Even Whitney Houston honours the second part of the diphthong in “I” (ae). From memory there is quite a lot of r-rolling too.

None of this is to detract from the overall excellence of this production.  It’s raised as a question of cultural colonialism : unconscious? inadvertent? by stealth?

nik smythe          posted 17 Jul 2008, 04:03 PM / edited 17 Jul 2008, 04:04 PM

i have a dilemma about where to start and where to stop caring… i am inclined to agree that we should because i’m not fond of excessive americanisation.*

but then i write songs, and when i sing them they often come out sounding kind of american.  is this programming from watching ready to roll since i was five, or is the american twang just more naturally musical than the closer to home clipped english or lazy kiwi?

so then i consciously relax my accent to be more like my own natural one.  therein lies said dilemma, as having to concentrate on not putting on a fake accent results in the alleged genuine accent sounding more affected than your average elvis impersonation.

outside of pop song poetry, in a more theatrical realm, i support john’s objection more.  i don’t imagine any conspiracy per se by the yanks (can we call them that?) to get us all talking like them, so it’s probably unconscious, or simply not bothered.

* (interestingly, as i type, the message box has underlined the word ‘americanisation’, objecting to it’s using an s not a z)

Dane Giraud       posted 19 Jul 2008, 10:22 AM

It is an interesting subject. I had always wondered why New Zealand actors playing Russian Aristocracy used hoity English accents – But then worked out that the translations are normally phrased to those accents and, of course, we do not nessacarily have an equivilant accent because of our (percieved) lack of class system – a billionare and a mechanic Kiwi can sound pretty much the same.

It could be that the singer admires American singers and why not? To be honest I would rather hear Shakespeare or any song performed with a good open throat so that the vowels travel well. Our unique accent comes of having a tight jaw – not ideal for vowel sounds.

Culteral colonisation? Please. This is the country that gave us Eugene O’Neill! Such an influence is warmly welcomed by me!

I want to live in America…

John Smythe      posted 19 Jul 2008, 11:46 AM / edited 10 Aug 2008, 08:01 PM

Hi Dane. The question is, why are original NZ songs sung in American accents, especially when the characters who sing them are otherwise clearly Kiwi (or, in the case of remade fairy stories, the actors are using their own voices).

Why do the Topp Twins, who have good strong natural Kiwi accents and have developed wonderfully comic Kiwi archetype characters, sing all their songs in American accents? I don’t buy the ‘it’s the genre’ argument. Slim Dusty sings (sang) Country and Western in a rich Aussie accent and became far more iconic than those who sang Aussie originals in American accents. The Lonesome Buckwhips keep their natural Kiwi voices for their songs and they are a glorious breath of fresh air.

Your comment on how we do Chekhov reminds me of when I worked with Sir Tyrone Guthrie on a 1970 Melbourne Theatre Company production of All’s Well That Ends Well. When it came to the first rehearsal of a scene where Florentine women chat in the street, the actresses asked what accent he wanted: North Country, Southern, Cockney …?

“Australian, of course,” he replied. “The play is set in France and Florence, so the only logical thing is to use your ‘own voices’.” The irony was that most of them were old school actresses, using elocuted ‘RP’ (received pronunciation) for upper class classical European roles or a wide range of English dialects for ‘character roles’. A natural Australian voice was the hardest ask for them.

In the same year, incidentally, Guthrie directed King Oedipus for the Old Tote Theatre Company (forerunner to the Sydney Theatre Company) and the conservative subscription audience was outraged to hear the Shepherd and Messenger characters played in broad Australian accents. When it went on tour (after Guthrie had returned to the UK), those actors were replaced with an expatriate Scotsman and a Cockney, who used their own voices, no worries … It wouldn’t happen now.

Stuart Coats        posted 19 Jul 2008, 04:17 PM / edited 19 Jul 2008, 05:12 PM

I wonder if the accent that you heard John (and I have to admit to not having seen Hinepau as I am on tour) is a result of projection. An easy way to get more sound is to push the sound more through the nose. Often people refer to it as “lifting” the sound. The most extreme examples are the old Broadway singers like Ethel Merman. This isn’t a natural thing for New Zealanders to do, as we tend to swallow our vowels towards the back of the throat. It is easier for Australians as they brighten the sound anyway. As a result of our vowel placement New Zealanders have a tendancy to sound flat, even when we are actually on the right pitch. As such, as a singer I am often told to lift the sound for both pitch and volume reasons. Interestingly, both the American and “upper class” British accents are done using a more nasal technique which is a reason why the old Russian plays may well have ended up in that English voice.

Having not seen Hinepau I can’t say what they do amplification-wise, but performers like the Topp Twins may well have used the American accent in an attempt to get their voices to “fill the space.” It’s also handy if you are busking, as they used to do I believe.

Again, having not seen the production I can’t comment definitively (and even if I had I am not an expert so I wouldn’t be able to comment definitively anyway) but I just wanted to put that idea out there. Knowing Capital E as I do, I am sure that it is not a case of trying to make the waiata sound American. 

Dane Giraud       posted 20 Jul 2008, 11:07 AM

I haven’t seen the production either but would imagine that the need for projection is probably why the accent sounds American. It would be a real challenge to fill a theatre with a broad New Zealand accent. You wait until debate time in the upcoming elections… When Helen Clark really gets going… thats the sound you’d get… A bit like a Yeti on heat.

The downside to an accent placed so far in the back of the throat is that it sounds like the speaker is dumb. Unfortunate, but true. This is why I would always prefer RP for a classical play over a New Zealand accent. All this wonderful imagery and high thought coming out of a flat muffled voice just breaks the illusion for me. When I saw Theatre at Larges King Lear all those years ago that was just what I got… I don’t think it works. Unless you’re playing Caliban.

Because we do not elongate vowels in out accent we just cannot make classical texts soar. RP is best.  

There are many who think that, for the sake of culteral indentity, we should present these plays in our natural accents but to me that is political question not a theatrical one.   

The irony is that if you were to do serious voice work it would follow that you would be taken away from a New Zealand accent. The sound is restricted so could not be encouraged by a respectable voice teacher. 

Jamie McCaskill                 posted 20 Jul 2008, 07:46 PM

 Strike play Taiko drums but we won’t say that they’re being colonised by the Japanese!! Because Erina said a couple of words KIND OF americanised, to fit with the rhyme in a song it doesn’t mean that our culture in music and theatre is under attack from american cultural colonisation.  We are perfectly aware of where we stand culturally in this world as artists.

I have recently toured in a show where we performed 2 of Hone Huri Hanganui’s waiata. The correct pronunciation and lengthening of vowels in the Reo wasn’t as tight as what it would’ve been if we were  to speak it because we had to honour the sound of the song.  Rap, pop, reggae, barbershop, soul, blues, all use different dipthongs to comfort the journey of the song.  Some artists might say the same word differently in the same song to manipulate a rhyme and give it more resonance. In the case of Hinpau the accent was loosened in order to get the right sound.

John Smythe      posted 20 Jul 2008, 08:41 PM / edited 21 Jul 2008, 08:10 AM

Good points, Jamie. I do accept there can be a need to shift vowels in certain circumstances – especially to elongate them and use a sound that opens the throat more. (By the way my comments refer to English language songs only – I’m not equipped to comment on waiata in te reo.) But given that reasoning, why is it not better to elongate the ‘a’ in dance (as in farce) for a more open throat, rather than shorten it (as in fax)? Yet will we ever daance to those ten guitars … ?

To go back to previous posts, projection is not the issue when voices are amplified, as with Hinepau, The Topp Twins, The Warratahs singing the Interislander song on the TV commercial, Dave Dobbyn’s songs for Footrot Flats … (all original NZ songs). I’m talking about a widespread habit that extends well beyond live theatre.

And let’s move on (Dane) from the total fiction that the English-speaking NZ accent is, by definition, flat muffled and produced in the back of the throat. A plummy English accent is more likely to be held back there. The natural placing for the Kiwi voice is in the top of the mouth, sometimes restricted by a thick heavy tongue and a lazy jaw and lips. Even so, the resonance can be excellent – consider Barry Crump. Or John Hore Grenell (why welcome Kiwis to their world in an American accent?). Bruno Lawrence, Annie Whittle … Robyn Malcolm and the entire cast of Outrageous Fortune, not to mention Shortland Street … A full range of perfectly natural NZ voices for which we need feel no embarrassment.

Stuart is right to note the Australian accent is more in the nasal resonator – which prompted Sir Tyrone Guthrie (see above) to observe that it is no wonder more Australian than English singers feature in the opera houses of the world. I think Kiwis combine the nasal and mouth resonators. To investigate this, try speaking in a broad Aussie accent then block your nose. The voice stops. Likewise with a resonant Kiwi accent. Now speak in a plumy English accent produced in the back of the throat and block your nose. The voice continues to sound. Interesting, eh.

Over the 17 years I lived in Australia I witnessed their transition from cultural cringe to self respect and celebration of their distinctive identity, not least in the performing arts, so it saddens me to hear those tired old arguments coming out here to deny us our own distinctive voices. Put it this way: Australians would have been bemused to hear Bob Hawke denigrated for his Aussie accent. I hope we all feel the same way about attempts to put down Helen Clark be cause of the way she speaks.

Dane Giraud       posted 21 Jul 2008, 08:21 AM

John, I was talking about classical theatre. And none of the actors you mentioned struck me as classical actors. If a play (and this is my personal opinion obviously) is a New Zealand play then, yes, perform it in a New Zealand accent but, from my experience as a viewer a broad NZ accent absolutley kills Shakespeare. And yes, there is a cringe factor. That is exactly what it is.

Now you tell me that we shouldn’t be putting down Helen Clarks accent because it is ours – an expression of our culteral indentity? I must have misunderstood because that’s just nuts!

Forget the culteral indentity thing, John. It is another abstract catch phrase that means nothing. You and I both live in New Zealand but I would argue that there is very little, background, tastes etc that make us similar. And who is it that decides whats culterally kosher anyway?

If someone likes to hear their classics delivered in RP does that make them less proud of being a New Zealander? There is a touch of the East German about you John.

Back to the strand… if she sounded good, then the accent is spot on.

Edna Welthorpe(Mrs)    posted 21 Jul 2008, 09:53 AM / edited 21 Jul 2008, 09:57 AM

This is quite right.  If someone takes to  the crisp sounds of received pronunciation, they are merely appreciating the same accent that Shakespeare used.  Everyone knows that he invented the Queen’s English, which she then adopted, and that is Good Acting.  If only that ruffian Harold Pinter had listened to this advice, he would have been a good performer and a useful playwright instead of the useless layabout that he is.  ‘Vernacular’ indeed!  It is just awful.  I blame the schooling.

I frequently find that when people disagree with me, I call them East Germans, too.   Perhaps they are.

John Smythe      posted 21 Jul 2008, 11:32 AM

Ah Edna, you make the point so well: it is the class status of a character rather the classic status of the play that conditions how they should speak. But unfortunately the classics do often include characters from the lower orders.

Dane, what accent should the Gravedigger use in a New Zealand production of Hamlet (set in Denmark)? What about the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors (Italy); the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Greece) – and the Shepherd and Messenger in King Oedipus (also Greece)?   

In 1990 Colin McColl famously revitalised Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler by relocating if from 1890s Norway to 1950s Wellington without changing a word of text, except that Jim Moriarty’s Lovborg spoke one line – “What I was after was the substance. What I go was the shadow.” – in Māori. It was enthusiastically received in Edinburgh (the International Festival, not the Fringe), London and in Oslo itself.

In my opinion its classical (universal and timeless) status was honoured by liberating the actors from trying to approximate a culture of which they had no experience into a realm of much greater authenticity.

Authenticity is the point – and that is the point I’m trying to make about how original NZ songs get sung. 

Welly Watch       posted 21 Jul 2008, 02:13 PM

Dane. Let me get this clear. Your East German jibe is to suggest you think John is trying to control your mind by raising a question for us to think twice about. But you do think the insidious infiltration of young minds and hearts over many generations by the commercial US music machine and other media monoliths should be accepted without question or resistance. Is that right?

Actually I don’t mean that to sound like a conspiracy theory. If we let ourselves and our own creations disappear into the vast swamp of Americanised pop culture, we only have ourselves to blame.

It’s one thing for kids to ape their pop idols by singing into their hairbrushes or barbie dolls or whatever with full on American accents. Quite another for grown up NZers to sing their own original songs in American accents, especially when they carry part of a narrative storyline that is otherwise performed in their normal NZ voices. Which I think was the original point here.

Dr Cameron        posted 21 Jul 2008, 04:22 PM / edited 22 Jul 2008, 12:46 PM


Die Geschichte aller bisherigen Gesellschaft ist die Geschichte von Klassenkämpfen!

Freier und Sklave, Patrizier und Plebejer, Baron und Leibeigener, Zunftbürger und Gesell, kurz, Unterdrücker und Unterdrückte standen in stetem Gegensatz zueinander, führten einen ununterbrochenen, bald versteckten, bald offenen Kampf, einen Kampf, der jedesmal mit einer revolutionären Umgestaltung der ganzen Gesellschaft endete oder mit dem gemeinsamen Untergang der kämpfenden Klassen … [etc, etc]* ….

Die Bourgeoisie hat alle bisher ehrwürdigen und mit frommer Scheu betrachteten Tätigkeiten ihres Heiligenscheins entkleidet. Sie hat den Arzt, den Juristen, den Pfaffen, den Poeten, den Mann der Wissenschaft in ihre bezahlten Lohnarbeiter verwandelt!

You know it makes sense!

Herr Doktor Cameron

*[Heavily edited because a rant on the history of class warfare is off topic – and because posts in one of our official languages are preferred. The gag is delivered nevertheless  – ED]

Jamie McCaskill                 posted 23 Jul 2008, 10:21 AM

Killed another forum eh Dr Cameron?  What a shit doctor.

Stuart Coats        posted 10 Aug 2008, 06:19 PM

Just to keep this alive (because it is a topic that interests me) I’d like to question John’s putting forward of the casts of Outrageous Fortune and Shortland Street as examples of New Zealand accents getting a fair hearing. It is very easy to do that when you are miked (and I’m sure ADR is used as well although I’m prepared to cede to those with greater knowledge of the workign processes of both shows.) It is harder to project the NZ accent in a live theatre. Again, not having seen Hinepau I can’t say whether they used mikes or not. In my time at Capital E (break out the walking sticks) we never used them, ot if we did it was a couple of shotguns at the front of the stages of larger halls.

John Smythe      posted 10 Aug 2008, 09:09 PM

I challenge the assertion the Kiwi accent is not conducive to projection and can only be delivered authentically with the aid of amplification. Aside from the fact that its natural placing in the mouth and nasal resonators gives us a head start, so to speak, professional actors and singers should have learned how to breathe and produce their voices so any vowel sound will carry.

I’ve been listening carefully of late and now don’t think any vowel sound restricts the flow of air. ‘I’ is a diphthong (ae) so the aaaa… can be extended to hold a note (as in ‘Aaaaaae will aaaalwaays laaarve yooou’. Speaking of which it fascinates me that so many NZ artists sing ‘I’ as ‘ah’ yet refuse the same vowel sound in ‘dance’ preferring to rhyme it with ‘can’ or ‘van’. What’s with that?

Stuart Coats        posted 25 Aug 2008, 12:04 PM

John, I’m unsure what you’re driving at there. You use the example of Whitney Houstoun who definately does not sing in an NZ accent. The problem, I would suggest, comes not with the vowels which, as you say, are nice and clear, but the placing of the consonant. New Zealanders tend to do 2 things. They sing on the consonat rather than the vowel, so that the word little would be sung littlllllllle rather than litteeeeeeeel, and they swallow consonants such as d’s and t’s. This means that the tongue gets in the way when the vowel is formed. You might have to trust me on this one – I have spent many singing lessons trying to fix this problem in myself! What it does mean is that the sound ends up in the back of the mouth rather than farward, where a lot of the natural resonators are.

BTW if there is someone out there reading this who can explain all of this in better temrs please feel free.


martyn roberts posted 26 Aug 2008, 10:28 AM

Hi Stuart

How about the formation of a choir solely for the purpose of singing in the glorious New Zild accent? ‘Poff da mudgic druggun’ anyone?

Jonny Hair           posted 26 Aug 2008, 10:49 AM

My theory is it’s probably caused by years of singing in cars and showers.  All those classics you used to sing in the car on the way to your holiday bach.  4 hours of SolidGold really trains those American vowels up nicely.  Maybe if your wanting to be a proffesional “NZ” singer the only song you need work on is Poi E.  Over and over …

John Smythe      posted 26 Aug 2008, 11:23 AM / edited 26 Aug 2008, 12:53 PM

That’s exactly it, Johnny. We imitate songs the way we hear them on the radio … And for decades they were rarely our songs. Cool. That’s the cover band syndrome. Fine.

But then we make up our own songs and, automatically, sing them the same way because our conditioning tell us that’s ‘correct’. Or that’s the way to avoid cringing at the sound of our own voices.

Back in the old days actors used to do that with the ‘voice beautiful’ classics; radio announcers used to do it all the time; likewise the narrators of the old newsreels … All sad examples of cultural cringe and subservience to cultural imperialism, albeit self-imposed.

Well actors and broadcasters have long since grown up and we as a nation have learned to accept our own distinctive voices in those arenas – so why can’t pop singers do it too? Hell, aren’t they supposed to be at the radical end of the arts spectrum? Why should they, of all people, hang on to such conditioned, conservative, reactionary habits?

Oh and Marty, get it right – that would be: “Poff th’ mejuck dre-e-eggin …” But I hope you realise I am not advocating the cod Kiwi version of cod Irish or cod Cockney (although since you raise it as an example, try singing ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ in a Yorkshire, Cockney, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Californian, New York, Southern USA, Indian, Australian accent … then ask yourself why we shouldn’t be able to do it Kiwi too).

I’m talking about original NZ songs using natural New Zealand voices, well produced and articulated but without recourse to the American accent. Simple. If The Lonesome Buckwhips can achieve in the Country genre – game over. No more excuses.

Stuart Coats        posted 27 Aug 2008, 05:11 PM

But The Lonesome Buckwhips don’t sing in southland accents…..

Dane Giraud       posted 27 Aug 2008, 07:13 PM

It sounds to me you just want to swap one form of imperialism for another. I would think that checking the boxes for New Zild-ness is more self-conscious than any Mr. Newsreel was. All it has to do is sound GOOD to be valid don’t you think? Like all art… It just has to be good.

John Smythe      posted 27 Aug 2008, 10:38 PM

I keep thinking I’m stating the bleeding obvious; does it really need to be argued this much? Then Dane, for one, proves it does. Sadly. “Good” is a totally subjective assessment, Dane. It is also culturally conditioned and implicitly political.

I am of the generation where a “good” voice for an actor could only be one that denied its New Zealand origins. Davina Whitehouse, head of drama for NZBC radio, told me I would never be an actor “because of my New Zealand accent.” We had no right to exist as ourselves. The same had been true in Australia when I went to drama school there. That was cultural imperialism, it was not good, it was a long time ago and I cannot believe we still have to argue the fundamental value of authenticity.

Time to move on, surely.

Share on social


Make a comment